A Forensic Poet for Our Time

Monica Youn (photo by Sarah Shatz)

What do you do, if you are a poet who has never “ been comfortable with autobiographical material?” Monica Youn’s poems brim with answers to this question that a younger poet might do well to notice. In her recent book, Blackacre: Poems, she refracts the particulars of her life through different prisms: Francois Villon’s “Ballade des Pendus” (“Ballad of the Hanged Men”), in which a group of hanged men speak in a collective voice; the next-to-last shot in Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975), starring Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider; John Milton’s “Sonnet 19 (On his Blindness).” Executed by hanging, assuming a dead man’s identity, or going blind – many of the figures Youn focuses on exist in an extreme state, fundamentally cut off from others.

For the most part, Youn does not turn her extreme figures into occasions for a dramatic monologue. Rather, she approaches the subject from different perspectives. The three-line poem “Portrait of a Hanged Man” is further inflected by her reading of “St. Julian” (1455) by Piero della Francesca. It opens with this line:

The eyes / as if / pinned in / place tacked / up at / the corners /
then pulled/ taut then

Another poem in the series, “Exhibition of the Hanged Man,” opens with these lines:

To spectate
is a verb

that does not
mean to watch.

It is

the Latin root

means to watch;

it is wrong

to say
you spectate me;

but not wrong
to say

you watch me.

Youn recognizes that whoever or whatever we are, our existence and how we might understand that contingent condition takes place in language. What connects one pronoun to another? What is looking? What is seeing? What happens when these acts occur?

I become

temporal; bounded
in time. I am

an event now,
a kind of show.

I entertain

Who are the “visitors?” What is being an “event” akin to? What connections and resonances might the reader make of this in our media-saturated world? Youn’s poems arise out of close reading and close looking. Her approach is forensic – measured and detailed. When she does approach the explicitly autobiographical, we don’t read “I,” but “you,” as in: “But what is it you want? For example, you are in a high-school parking lot.” The very different and distinct angles through which Youn pulls the precise elements of her life seem to become more specific, even as they become more distanced from the transparent “I” long associated with the autobiographical: this is a compelling paradox (or Gordian knot) animating her poetry. We stop thinking about whether or not the poem is about the author, and begin thinking about language and how it works, what being conscious of being on the cusp of infinity stirs up, what is the “I” and other pronouns’ relationship to the body, the thing that will die.

(click to enlarge)

Youn’s Blackacre is practically a handbook on poetics. The reader should delight in the way she breaks up her lines horizontally, how she groups words into phrases at once sonorous and mineral-like (“red mullions flaunting”), the shifts in tonal registers, the cool surfaces she achieves and the intense heat they evoke. There are long skinny poems, prose poems, a poem where every section begins with the conditional “as if.” She goes from the documentarian mode to the mythic. In addition to Latin etymology , movies, and Piero della Francesca, she brings in urban legends and slang – the high and low, or what Clement Greenberg called “avant-garde and kitsch,” without ever devolving into the latter. Youn speaks to the reader in a tone that is simultaneously confidential and dispassionate; it is a voice that has traveled a long distance across many different kinds of territory.

There are many standout poems in this dazzling collection. What strikes me each time I read these poems – and some I have read many times – is that I never feel as if the poet is showing off. Youn never comes across as trying to impress the reader with her knowledge, which is considerable. No matter how steeped in etymology, art history, history, literature, and law – branches of knowledge Youn clearly knows – each poem feels urgent and necessary.

In the prose poem “Blueacre,” Youn isolates and measures the penultimate shot of Antonioni’s The Passenger, when the camera looks through a hotel window, “a seven-minute-long, single-take tracking shot in which the camera adopts the perspective of David Locke (Jack Nicholson0, and is positioned to look out of his hotel window,” the poet tells us in the “Notes” at the back of the book. It is an incrementally built catalogue of heightened details that slows down our sense of time. The window becomes a stage – people move across it. Different sounds are registered. The camera (poem) is a state of consciousness, but to what end is never stated.

Narrative offers resolution or revelation, conditions that have become conventional in many poems. We know how it will all end long before we finish the last line. This never happens in a Youn poem. And yet, as in Antonioni’s film, we cannot turn our eyes away, cannot stop reading. We soak up the details, realizing surely how often we are not present. The desire to be present is what drives Youn’s poems. Like Antonioni’s camera, she doesn’t flinch.

In Youn’s “Notes,” we learn that:

The term ‘Blackacre” is a legal fiction first used by the great English legal scholar Sir Edward Coke in a 1628 treatise. In Anglo-American legal parlance, “Blackacre” is a standard placeholder used to denote a fictional piece of land, often a bequest, much as the term “John Doe” is used to indicate a fictional or anonymous individual.

Writing about the title poem, “Blackacre,” on Harriet, the Poetry Foundation’s online blog, Youn also describes her poetics:

We never start with a blank slate—each acre has been previously tenanted, enriched and depleted, built up and demolished. What are the limits of the imagination’s ability to transform what is given?

In these two sentences Youn defines a position that rejects the conceptualist “uncreative” stance that one “massages” the found (or “tenanted”) text, but cannot otherwise do anything to it, as well as distances herself from those poets for whom the lyric “I” is central. Her poem “Brownacre” offers many pleasures, including the way she stands the familiar operating procedure of a confessional poem on its head. Instead of focusing on a traumatic event and the bruised (damaged, broken) feelings that result, Youn writes:

I wasn’t paying attention: I was watching the thing
you had just said to me still hanging in the air between us,

We never learn what “you” said, and we don’t have to, do we? Not when we read hallucinatory lines like these, as the poet’s attention focuses on the “thing […] [still hanging in the air between us:”

the molecules of concrete coalescing grain by grain
into a corrugated pillar topped by a cloud–a tree form:

In the masterful “Blackacre,” the book’s title poem, Youn reads Milton’s famous sonnet on being blind. “Blackacre” consists of fourteen numbered sections in prose; it is both a reading of poem and, as Youn writes on Harriet:

[…] about my “barrenness,” my desire to have a child who would be genetically “mine,” my increasingly irrational pursuit of that desire, its long-drawn-out failure, the fallout of recriminations and regrets, and my eventual decision to have a child by other means.

Through her close reading of Milton’s poem, she discovers an affinity between her state and Milton’s:

My mistake was similar. I came to consider my body–its tug-of-war tautnesses and slacknesses–to be entirely my own, an appliance for generating various textures and temperatures of friction.

Youn’s use of “appliance” brings us back into the mediation from an unexpected angle. An “appliance” is a utensil used to perform a specific task, which is typically domestic. How many different and distinct ways might we consider her use of “appliance?”

Each of the fourteen sections of “Blackacre” is a prose poem, which corresponds, improvises upon, dances with some part of Milton’s fourteen- line, dense, rhyming sonnet. Youn is fearless throughout the poem, bringing the reader to disturbing, intriguing states that she points to but never explains:

[…] Does the wideness of the wide-legged girl evoke a kind of blindness, a dark room where one might blunder into strangers, the way two men once met each other in me.

Youn examines the body, language, and the language used to describe the female body. The tone can, by turns, be interrogatory, tender, coldly scientific, analytical, allegorical, plain and painful, all without ever asking for sympathy or singling herself out. In every generation there is a handful of poets who challenge the way we think about language and how it is used. These include Etel Adnan, Jay Wright, Susan Howe, Clark Coolidge, Michael Palmer, Alice Notley, Ron Silliman, Nathaniel Mackey, Will Alexander, Cathy Park Hong, and Harryette Mullen. It is to this distinguished company that Youn now belongs.

Monica Youn’s Blackacre: Poems (2016) is published by Graywolf Press and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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